Why the MLB lockout is a crucial moment in compensating young up-and-coming players
For all of us that enjoy the offseason in the MLB, these last couple of weeks has been the worst-case scenario. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expired on December 2nd after half a decade in use, leading the owners to lockout the players. While this period may have the outward appearance of cancelled games and months of nothing, this will likely not be the case. However, this window is pivotal for the Player's Association to correct some mishaps from the previous negotiation. This work stoppage is all about money and free agency— despite what the commissioner says — and an entire generation of up-and-coming players have the potential to earn their fair share of the pie.
As you can probably tell, I'm in favour of the players in these CBA negotiations. This isn't blind faith, however, as the percentages taken home by the players have been steadily decreasing over the past couple of decades. The argument that players are getting paid more than ever is flawed and the numbers don't lie.
The classes of players have become split into two distinct groups: superstars and cheap, young prospects. The headlines are full of these monster contracts from superstars, but the 1% doesn't represent the state of the players.
In the current CBA, players reach free agency after six years of service time. This allows teams to take advantage of "untapped prospects" before paying them what the open market would dictate, no matter how blue-chip the prospect might be.
For example, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player, Shohei Ohtani, made only $3 million last season in one of the most legendary performances in league history. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was making peanuts in his runner-up campaign making close to the league minimum at $605,400. The current state of free agency rewards the teams for getting the most out of the cheap players early before scrapping them and finally getting paid once they hit free agency.
The problem of that sentiment is the assumption that every player just needs to be patient and wait for free agency to rake in the multi-million dollar contract. The average length that a player is in the major leagues has shrunk to 2.7 years, meaning that most players won’t have the longevity to reach that day. Teams are becoming more willing to try their hand at an inexpensive prospect instead of paying into arbitration salaries.
Another factor is the age of when players will reach free agency. Take this example: you are a pitcher who completed all four years of college baseball before being drafted at age 22. In your first year, you need to undergo Tommy John surgery, keeping you out for 18 months. Let’s say you finally come back and blow the socks off the competition and make it up to the majors for age 27. Based on the obstacles, you reached the big leagues as fast as you could, but with our scenario, you will reach free agency at age 33. When players are on the wrong side of 30 — unless you’re Max Scherzer — the contracts will usually be for shorter-term and less money as teams do not want to pay a premium for past performance.
One idea that has been thrown around is for a player to be eligible for free agency after five years, shortened from six years, currently. A more ambitious ask has been to start the free agency process when a player turns 29.5 years of age if six years of service time had not been accrued. That would negate the risk that I previously mentioned where a player with a bad injury would miss their window to cash in their hard work. It also rewards players who managed to click everything together years into their minor league journey into their late twenties.
Now I know it can be difficult to empathize with the “millionaires versus billionaires” debate as both parties are more well off than the average person financially. This is important because minor league players are taken advantage of to such an extent that they need to be compensated properly if they make it up to the show. The average fan doesn’t see the prospect forced to get a part-time job in the offseason so they can afford to live. And if the vast majority of players, especially young players, aren’t making what they are worth in respect to team valuations on the rise across the league, then what were all of the long bus rides and time away from your family for.
Now the big question is: How is this relevant to the current youth who aren’t there yet? It’s because their time will come sooner than we think. A 2022 PBLO alumni may make an impact at school and find their way into a team’s minor league system. If they can be one of the lucky ones and work hard, shouldn’t their dedication be rewarded? Free agency is not in a healthy place, despite what Commissioner Manfred says. The process is weighted toward superstars while there is room for everyone to have their fair shot on the open market. This negotiating window will be a turning point for young players throughout the sport, and let’s hope things progress before April comes along.